If you had to run a marathon tomorrow, how would you do it?  

Would you run as fast as possible, trying to get it over with? Or would you pace yourself, making sure you had enough stamina to make it all the way across the finish line — 42 kilometers away?  

Most people would choose the first option, because sprinting the length of the race would lead to failure, or at least muscle damage.   

It's common sense, right?  

But this same logic is rarely applied by someone who decides to learn a new language.   

So, instead of making sure you have the energy to run the race, you need to keep your motivation flying high to last you an indefinite number of years.

That's a real challenge, and few learners who start the language learning "marathon" ever make it close to the end.

But you can do it. And I want to show you how.  

Let's jump right in.

1. Clarify Your Reasons for Learning a New Language

Nowadays, many people get their first exposure to languages in school, where they are required to take one or more as a required class. Others start to learn a new language merely out of curiosity, as a sort of hobby.

It is interesting to note that although massive numbers of people have begun learning a language at one time or another, very few of them reach any kind of fluency.

Why is this? Why do so many people give up a language soon after starting?  

The answer has to do with something called "intrinsic motivation".

Intrinsic motivation is the type of motivation that comes from within. It’s the sum of your internal reasons for taking action to do anything you want.

To accomplish anything challenging in life, you need tons of intrinsic motivation, backed by compelling and long-lasting internal reasons.  

People who start to lean a new language, but then give up, are usually in one of two situations:

  • They lack any internal motivation, and are learning only due to external motivators (i.e. "My mom said I have to learn French")
  • They have internal motivation, but their reasons for learning are weak (e "This language sounds cool!")

To avoid that, take out a sheet of paper, and make a list of all of your reasons to learn your target language. 

Let me give you a few examples:

  • I'm learning Mandarin so I can communicate better with my father, who is from Beijing.
  • I'm studying French so that I can watch my favorite French movies without subtitles.
  • I surround myself with German so that I can connect more deeply with the culture of my ancestors.

Once you have your list, post it on your wall, and review it regularly. If your reasons are truly meaningful for you, then they will carry you through any difficulties you may face while learning

2. Visualize Your Future Success

Take a few minutes now to visualize your own future success with your target language. Once you've created the visualization, write it down.

If you’re thinking "I want to be fluent", then it’s not enough. 

When you learn a new language as an absolute beginner, it's easy to have vague ideas about the skill level you would eventually like to reach.

Most learners have no idea of what they want to be able to talk about, who they want to be able to talk with, or in which contexts they will actually use the language.

With a vague end goal like fluency, it's hard to keep up the motivation to actually reach that point. You never know when you're done learning, so actual success always feels an eternity away.  

In order to feel pulled in the direction of your language learning goals, you need to make them seem as real as possible, even when you're just a beginner.

The best way to do this is through a technique called "visualization".    

Visualization consists of using your imagination to picture exactly what your life will be like when you accomplish a goal, down to the smallest detail.

To create a powerful visualization for your language goals, this means picturing:

  • What you are doing
  • When you are doing it
  • Where you are
  • Who you are with
  • How you feel in that situation.

When I was studying Russian, I often envisioned myself chatting happily with a Russian babushka about her life during World War II. I love learning about the war, so this was exactly the motivation I needed to keep up my Russian skills.  

Ultimately, you want a visualization that resonates with you emotionally. If a visualization is emotionally impactful and represents exactly what you want your life to be like in the future, you will be heavily motivated to make it happen.

You will literally fall in love with a language.

And that will make all the difference.

3. Set Your Priorities and Plan Your Learning Time

Though we've just covered powerful ways to create motivation before you start learning, there are also many ways to keep motivated while you learn.  

Most importantly, the key to staying motivated while learning is to actually sit down and learn your target language on a regular basis.

Sorry, no shortcut here.

The reason for this is very simple: if you see yourself taking action to learn a new language, you'll feel productive, and so naturally want to take more action.

If, instead, you decide to slack off and just think about learning a language, all of your initial motivation will disappear, and you'll be left feeling lazy and undisciplined.

So, staying motivated means making language learning a regular priority in your life.

Since I'm sure you've already got lots of other priorities to worry about (e.g. family, kids, work), the next step for you is to make sure that you schedule your learning time in advance.

With a dedicated place on your schedule, language learning will become a meaningful part of your life, like going to work or watching your favorite TV show. You won't miss it, so you'll finally start to gather momentum and make real progress.

4. Track Your Progress with a Language Learning Logbook

At the beginner stage of a language, you go from having no skill in the language to having some skill in a very short amount of time.   

In the span of a few months, you could feasibly know enough of your target language to have very basic conversations.   

That's a very noticeable improvement, especially considered you started from scratch. Moving forward, it's only natural that future improvements become less and less noticeable with time.   

Think about it. To go from 1 known vocabulary word to 101 known vocabulary words is a massive 10000% improvement.  

However, to go from 10,001 known vocabulary words to 10,101 known words (the same 100-word increase) is an almost-imperceptible 1% improvement.

People often give up learning before the intermediate stage because they are becoming less and less aware of their own progress. When their progress is hard to see, they have less motivation, and thus decide to quit.

To stay motivated, you need to be able to see your progress and track it over time.

I suggest you do this by keeping a language learning logbook.

Simply find or purchase an empty notebook, and use it to record your daily learning efforts.

Keep a record of:

  • Time and date of learning session
  • What actions you took during that time (e.g. Spoke to tutor for 30 minutes)
  • Any useful words or sentences learned.

Then, at the end of every month, review the contents of your notebook. These reviews will make it easy for you to see what you've learned, and how your skills have grown over time.

Keeping a language learning logbook is only of the powerful language habits you can develop over time.

5. Set Goals and Reward Yourself

Along the way, you might feel demotivated in the short-term, such as when you’re struggling with a certain grammatical concept or you're having trouble finding exchange partners.

In these scenarios, having your list of reasons (from Step 1) and your visualization (from Step 2) will make a huge difference. 

However, since these things represent long-term objectives, they may not feel relevant enough to get you past the problem you're having right now, in the moment.

This is where short-term goals come in.   

Whenever you're tackling a particularly hard problem (like a level test you have to pass or a speech you have to give) set a goal to solve that problem, and reward yourself when you do.

If you make the reward immediate and compelling, you'll be more motivated to get the reward than you will be demotivated by the obstacle in your path.   

Try giving yourself rewards that are:

  • Intellectual (e.g. "If I go to the Mandarin meetup group, I'll buy myself a new book")
  • Emotional (e.g. "If I complete this group language learning challenge for Finnish, I'll buy a ticket to Helsinki in the summer")
  • Regular (e.g. "I'll buy myself one video game for every three months I keep learning")

Think of rewarding yourself like placing metal in front of a magnet. The metal has no choice but to be pulled towards the magnet. In the same way, you can set rewards so that you have no choice but to keep making progress towards your goals.

6. Do What You Find Enjoyable and Challenging

In Step 4, we talked about the importance of taking action, and how regularly working on your target language will motivate you to keep working in the future.  

However, not all actions are equally motivating. In fact, if you're not careful, some can be very demotivating.  

You may have experienced this yourself.    

Have you ever tried to take on a task that was too challenging? Like a book that was above your reading level, or a game that was too hard for your skill level?  

Have you ever tried a new version of something you normally like, but that you found too boring? Like a bad movie by an actor you usually enjoy, or a lackluster restaurant of a style you usually like?  

Oftentimes, just being motivated to do a certain thing won't be enough to guarantee that you'll do it. That thing also has to be appropriately enjoyable and challenging, too.   

While you're learning a new language, you'll probably make tens of thousands of small choices. You'll choose which resource to start with, which tutor to use, which videos to watch, and which courses to follow.

All of these things need to be challenging enough to grow your skills, and enjoyable enough that you'll persist beyond the challenge.  

Of course, with a lot of tools, resources, and learning methods, it won't be obvious how enjoyable or challenging they are until you try them. That makes finding the right resources a trial-and-error process, that you will hone over time.

For example, after years of studying many different languages, I've found that I prefer using Assimil books and my Bidirectional Translation method to start off any new language I learn.  

Pay attention to what is challenging and enjoyable for you, and eventually you will zero-in on the best resources for your learning style.

7. Make a Meaningful Connection with a Native Speaker

At the beginning stages of learning a language, it often takes a long time to feel comfortable interacting directly with native speakers.   

You want to get to that point, of course, but you're too busy with books, apps, dictionaries, and courses to even begin to worry about real people.

If you don't eventually break out of the loop of one resource after another, you'll get too comfortable with book-learning, and forget that the central goal of language is communication between human beings.

As you get more and more skilled, you will then run the risk of getting bored with your day-to-day learning, but also being too scared to test your skills on natives. When stuck in that spot, it's easy to give up.

What you (and all other learners) need is to connect with a native speaker as early as possible, so that you'll be motivated to speak with them when you have the necessary skills.

To do this, I recommend that you:

  • Attend local cultural meetups and events
  • Visit stores, shops, and restaurants run by natives
  • Connect with native-speaking CouchSurfers visiting your area
  • Hire a native-speaking tutor when you're still a beginner.

The most important thing here is the connection; you don't have to speak the language until you're ready. However, when you're ready, you'll immediately have someone in your life you'll want to speak to.

Time to Reach Your Language Learning Goals

Many language learners lose motivation not because they lack talent, time, or the right method. Deep down they don’t believe they can do it, so they never stick to it.

You might be reading all of this and thinking, “This is way too hard, I can’t do it.”

But you can!

These are just bums in the road. If you commit yourself to implementing these seven tips, you will manage to stay on track and have enough motivation for the road ahead. 

 Before we go, please leave a comment below and tell me all about your experiences with language learning motivation:  

  • 1
    Have you ever given up after starting a language?
  • 2
    What do you do to stay motivated?

Can't wait to read your responses!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • All of what you said is spot on!! Motivation is key to sticking with language learning. At 61 I am determined now to learn Spanish which I have been attempting since high school many moons ago. I know that I love the language and am annoyed with myself for not being a consistent learner. I am keen to visit Latin American countries (one per year) and want to be able to converse in Spanish. This is the impetus that drives me now to speak the language. I do a bit every day as you advised and am feeling good about that.

  • 1. Ever since I was a teenager, I had always wanted to learn Russian. So when I was 20 years old, I finally went for it and bought myself the “Assimil” method. When I had the book in my hands, I was really enthusiastic but after reading the introduction and starting the first lessons, I gave up because it was too difficult for me. I found it too inaccessible although I was already familiar with language learning (English, German, Italian). Over the years, I had regularly come back to the book to give it another try, but with the same inefficient results. I just thought: “Russian is not for me”.
    When I was 25, I was with an Armenian friend of mine who is fluent in Russian (like many Armenians). She bumped into a Russian friend and started chatting with her. I was so frustrated that I could not take part in the conversation that this moment definitively triggered my will to study Russian for good.
    And I have been learning ever since!
    In hindsight, I realize that I had made the mistake of not studying with the recordings, which is absolutely crucial. I find it paramount to surround myself with audio/video in the target language (podcasts, series, music, etc.) so that my ears get used to the music of the language.

    2. Whenever I feel decrease of motivation, I remind myself of the frustrating conversation in which I could not take part, I visualize myself in conversation with natives (with very precise topic and phrases in mind), and I remind myself of the “drunkenness” of speaking/ reading/ listening in another language. It is a chance of being another “oneself”, of seeing the world through another filter. This feeling, for me, is worth anything.

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